Hei karaka – a modern adaptation of an eco-friendly Māori adornment

Hei karaka – a modern adaptation of an eco-friendly Māori adornment

Te Papa recently acquired three hei karaka woven by Tangimoe Clay (Te Whakatōhea) in Ōpōtiki, in the eastern Bay of Plenty. The lei or hei karaka is a form of necklace or adornment. Mātauranga Māori Curator Issac Te Awa describes the hei karaka and how this collection represents a modern adaptation of Māori adornment utilising eco-friendly and locally sourced materials in differing colours and styles.


Karaka means “to be orange” in te reo Māori and takes its name from the colour of its berries when ripe. Karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus) trees grow up to 20 metres tall and have a spreading canopy of dark green, glossy leaves. They are abundant in forests in the North Island and northern South Island, and on Rēkohu Chatham Islands, where it was introduced and is known as kopi.

A close-up photo of Karaka berries
Karaka berries on the tree (Corynocarpus laevigatus). Photo by Bernard Spragg via Flickr. Public domain

Karaka and Māori

Māori cultivated karaka, with trees planted in lines or circles. While the fleshy part of the fruit can be eaten, the kernel covering the seed is poisonous (a neurotoxin known as karakin that causes symptoms including nausea, vomiting, and seizures, permanent paralysis, and distortion of the body) unless properly prepared, and in the past, it was an important food source for Māori and Moriori in an environment where carbohydrates were rare. Karaka is a seasonal tohu in some iwi with ties to kererū, or kūkupa.

Before eating, the kernels had to be steamed and then flushed in running water for a lengthy period in order to remove the toxin karakin. Traditional treatment involved gagging the victims, wrapping them in mats and burying them up to their chins (to control the distorting convulsions), while forcing water down their throats (Crowe, 2004, A Field Guide to the Native Edible Plants of New Zealand, Penguin). The leaves were used to heal wounds (Brooker et al., 2002, New Zealand Medicinal Plants, Reed).

Anei ngā mea i whakataukitia ai e ngā tūpuna, ko te kaha, ko te uaua, ko te pakari, ko te kaha i te toki, ko te uaua i te pakake, ko te pakari i te karaka.
Here are the things valued by the ancestors, it is the strength, the vigour, the sturdiness, it is the strength of the adze, the vigour of the whale, and the sturdiness of the karaka tree.

Variations of the above whakataukī feature in a variety of historical references and highlight the importance of the karaka to Māori. Although it has been mentioned that karaka was used as a food source, its importance cannot be emphasised enough. The prepared seeds could be stored for the winter months, and they could be pounded and baked into a type of parāoa. There is a strong link between karaka prevalence and Māori sites, and in regions like Wellington region where subtropical plants like the kūmara did not thrive, they were even more important.

The ripening of karaka berries is a seasonal marker of the summer months and is a sign of the season Hakihea in the Maramataka, coinciding with the rising of the whetū Rehua. The process of collecting, preparing, steaming, and steeping karaka in some regions was a communal effort and an important part of historical life. Karaka also plays a role as a food source for native birds who are immune to its poison, with kererū being the karaka’s main seed dispersal agent.

Tangimoe Clay

Tangimoe Clay is a noted weaver of Te Whakatōhea descent who first became interested in weaving and harakeke around 1988, during the restoration of Turere marae near Ōpōtiki. During this time Tangimoe became involved in the care and restoration of the marae’s pā harakeke, and through this work, she fell in love with flax and began to learn the differences between the varieties. Eventually, Tangimoe approached Maggie Tai, who taught her to make her first tīpoti. From here Tangimoe began experimenting with different techniques used to weave kete and whāriki, igniting her passion for raranga.

A woman in a brightly coloured top sits behind a table in an artist's studio. On the table are four brightly coloured necklaces made of large seeds that have been dyed. In front of those, in the foreground are several ice-cream containers that have the seeds in them arranged by colour.
Tangimoe Clay with some of her hei karaka. Photo by Tia Nepia-Su’a. Te Papa

After learning to weave, Tangimoe went on to found Tangata Whenua Gallery based in her home town of Ōpōtiki, which has become a staple gallery within the region for over 20 years. Tangata Whenua is known for featuring an ongoing diverse range of Māori artists in a variety of traditional and contemporary mediums. Despite having a strong background in raranga, Tangimoe continued to seek new ways to advance and increase her creative skills, including graduating with a Bachelor of Māori Visual Art from Te Wānanga o Awanuiārangi in 2014.

Today, Tangimoe is known amongst Aotearoa’s kairaranga as an innovative weaver who is experienced in a variety of natural fibres and products both traditional and contemporary. She advocates strongly for the use of sustainable materials in Māori art and weaving. Though Tangimoe is known for her poi-making skills which traverse the line between art and function, she is also experienced in traditional kākahu, whāriki and kete making. Her works tend to be large-scale, boundary-pushing, and straddle the line between sculptural and conceptual.

Tangimoe is well known both in New Zealand and internationally and has featured in many exhibitions both solo and collaborative. Tangimoe has also been featured in several publications including Whatu Kākahu / Māori Cloaks edited by Awhina Tamarapa, and has spoken and presented at events. Tangimoe remains a highly active key member of Te Roopu Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa.

Creating the hei karaka

There are several styles of hei karaka that have been created by Tangimoe. They come in a variety of colours achieved via the use of teri dye, and seeds can be orientated in a variety of patterns. They are constructed using the peeled berry of the karaka which is then dyed and strung with whītau.

A bright multicoloured necklace made of dyed karaka berries.
Tangimoe Clay, Hei karaka (Multicoloured karaka seed necklace), 2022. Photo by Daniel Crichton-Rouse. Te Papa (ME024753)

Tangimoe, who enjoys eating the fruit, was inspired to utilise the berry seed when she observed the amount of waste from un-eaten karaka fruit, as it is rarely eaten today. The use of karaka seed was a natural adaptation for Tangimoe whose weaving and creative practice has long been guided by sustainable and eco-friendly principles that utilise local resources and recognise their connection to whenua and the environment.

A bright red necklace made of dyed karaka berries.
Tangimoe Clay, Hei karaka (Red karaka seed necklace), 2022. Photo by Daniel Crichton-Rouse. Te Papa (ME024752)

Very few people eat karaka anymore so there’s a lot of waste. To me, it tastes like mango, but they are also beautiful. I hope it sets a trend for people to use and utilise native berries as the beautiful adornment they should be.

– Tangimoe Clay, 2022.

With seed of the karaka being poisonous, Tangimoe is careful to remove the flesh of each berry and ensures that they are cooked properly to ensure she does not make poisonous or toxic art. Tangimoe likens this process to removing the tapu from the berries and rendering them noa, making them accessible to people for use. Maintaining her practice of sustainability, the resulting liquid is also utilised by Tangimoe as a weed killer.

A natural-coloured karaka berry necklace with a muka, or flax string tassle at one end.
Tangimoe Clay, Hei karaka (karaka seed necklace), 2022. Photo by Daniel Crichton-Rouse. Te Papa (ME024751)

The hei karaka have been in demand since they were launched, and interest has been high from several sports teams and kapa haka groups, as well as individuals from the community. Clay keeps well stocked with karaka seeds, especially as the berries are seasonal, only usually available from January to April.

A woman in a brightly coloured top puts an equally brightly coloured karaka berry necklace into a box. In the foreground are ice-cream containers with all the different coloured berries sorted into each one.
Tangimoe Clay with some of her hei karaka. Photo by Tia Nepia-Su’a. Te Papa

Hei use by Māori

The use of karaka as adornment has been also been utilised by other Māori practitioners. I also remember my Nan saying as a kid she strung karaka berries to adorn their Christmas tree.

In addition to modern practitioners, there is also a record of historical use of berries, seeds, shells, and grasses in pre- and early-contact hei culture, for example, tawāpou (Planchonella costata) which was frequently strung into necklaces and bracelets. A current example is in the British Museum. The form has also been replicated by modern jewellers (Māori and non-Māori).

Further reading

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